Throughout her career, Natalie Merchant has thrived on exceeding her own expectations -- no matter where her Muses led or her critics forbade her to go. Her last album, 2003’s The House Carpenter’s Daughter, rooted in American and British Isles folk traditions, was a stepping stone for Leave Your Sleep. Where the former's songs were originals and covers, Leave Your Sleep marries them in sung poetry and original music from both American and Celtic traditions.
Co-produced by Merchant and Andres Levin, this truncated single-disc version contains 16 of the 26 new songs on the double-disc one. It was recorded live in the studio. She used the poems of 19th and 20th century British and American writers as well as anonymous nursery rhymes and lullabies as source material and set them to original music. Among the authors on this volumes are are Ogden Nash, e.e. cummings, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jack Prelutsky, Edward Causely and others. Poetry is but one part of the story, however. The music Merchant composed is from across the genre spectrum: New Orleans swing on “Bleezer’s Ice Cream” (Prelutzky) and Nathalia Crane's “The Janitor’s Boy” are performed by Merchant fronting the Wynton Marsalis Orchestra. For the Yiddish folk music on “Dancing Bear” (Albert Bigelow Paine) she sings with the Klezmatics. Mervyn Peake's "It Makes a Change" is performed with Medeski, Martin & Wood and a horn section. “If No One Ever Marries Me,” (Laurence Alan-Tameda) is Appalachian backporch music with hammered dulcimer banjo, upright bass, and guitar. Through it all, of course, is that voice: Merchant’s throaty trademark. It expresses itself emotionally, honestly, and precisely, without resorting to dramatic tropes to get meaning across. The album closes with Hopkins' contemplative, melancholy “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child,” with a symphony orchestrated by Merchant and Sean O’Loughlin. It sends the set off much where it begins, illustrating poetry's ability to provide its own musical instruction, comfort, poignancy, and sense of wonder for the experience of everyday living. Merchant succeeds in spades here; all the research and discipline pays off handsomely. Leave Your Sleep is Merchant' s most ambitious work, yet because of her welcoming voice, it still provides familiarity enough to gather listeners inside her soundworld. ~ Thom Jurek